I’m away from home this week, spending some time away in seclusion to work on my WIP. I’ve always wanted to do this, cloister myself in a pretty place where I can be alone to create. I’ve been here since Monday and so far, I’VE FUCKING WRITTEN EXACTLY TWO PAGES!! This is sooooooo far away from the page count I wanted to accomplish (somewhere between 50 and a jabillion), and I feel like a cross between a rank amateur and the worst kind of slacker. BUT, I did have a bit of a breakthrough today. I’ve always thought that when so-called “writer’s block” hits, it’s because you’re approaching the page wrong, and what you need to do is take a 180 degree turn and come at it from another direction. So between that and a) making chicken salad from rotisserie chicken b) watching the shitstorm on the news c) eating cold pasta out of the leftover box from the restaurant, and d) pulling my pants up because I forgot to bring a belt, I had a bit of a breakthrough. I found out sometimes to go forward, you need to go back, and just the like foundation of a building, give your story enough support so what comes after doesn’t crumble. Turns out you can’t write all that foreshadowing if you have no structure for it to cast from. So I had to go back and give all those twists and turns a solid basis, and NOW, my story makes so much more sense. In fact, as I originally wanted to do, I’ve set my story up for at least another, if not one more, sequel. Now all I have to do is write it, but you know what? Once you’ve got the map, it’s so much more easy when you know where you’re going.
By golly, I do think I’ve reached the cocktail hour. Cheers!
The MFA in Creative and Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University and its alumni organization, the MFA Alumni Writers Collaborative, are now accepting submissions for the 2018 Housatonic Book Awards.
Although the Spring semester ended last month in my MFA program, I thought I’d give you the benefit of one more of my genius insights to hold you over until Fall. In this edition of Tips from the MFA Pit, our grad student asks the question: as an African-American, can she rightly write a white character? (Don’t you just love that alliteration??) She’s considering doing this for her current work-in-progress…
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I heard a quote once from Sofia Coppola, a writer and director in her own right, and the daughter of famed auteur Francis Ford Coppola: “I feel everyone should tell what they know in a world that they know.” I found this to be quite revelatory as it struck home for me, in a way so different from the old writer’s saw, “Write what you know.” How is it different? Because you’re writing what you know in the world YOU inhabit, and only you can know exactly what that is. You fear you will be plagiarizing if you write too closely to another story. But how can that be when you’re writing from within your own world? No one can inhabit your body but you. No one but you knows better what’s going through your brain. Only you can see from your perspective. There are lots of people who have written about ocean voyages. Or living in the Wild West. Or about cops chasing robbers. Or about falling in love. But no two stories are the same. Author Jodi Picoult’s novel Small Great Things is about an African-American nurse who works in a hospital and experiences racism firsthand. So does that mean there could never be another book about African-American nurses? Well, for one thing Picoult is white and not a nurse, so right there her points of reference will be unlike yours. You will always give your own story your own unique perspective if you write from within your own experiences and impressions.
Being white myself, I could never presume to know how it feels to be a person of color. So does that mean I could never write a black character? I hope not because I have. First and foremost, there are experiences we all share—we eat, we sleep, we love, we work, we despair, we hope, we laugh. We are all human. But there are things outside the realm of our shared similarities that are thrust upon us by society. For these, I strive for understanding. I try never to assume, and rather than rely on generalities, I write what I know in a world that I know. If it’s outside of our shared experiences, I do the research to get to know it better, or I don’t write it at all. I read a book called Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and it gave me great insights into the black experience, while simultaneously making me reconsider what it means to live my life as a white person. It gave me a greater understanding of both experiences, and hopefully it’s something I could translate into my characters of color. But will I ever be able to write with the unique perspective of an African-American? No, and not for the seemingly apparent reason. I couldn’t because I could only write from within my OWN unique perspective, and that will always be colored by my own experiences within my own world. But that doesn’t mean I can’t make it as real as I could.
So go ahead and write your story without fear. No matter how similar you think it is to something else, you will always be giving it your own unique spin. In fact, you can’t help it as long as you stay as close to your own truth as possible.